Queen Nefertari playing Senet

Dice, sticks and the journey of the dead: The ancient history of board games


Despite the increasing popularity and instant nature of modern ‘gadget’ games, the board game has been going through a period of growth, with more, not less people buying them. In 2012 The Guardian newspaper went as far as dubbing this “A Golden Age for Board Games.” In that year alone, board games saw a growth rate as high as 40%.

The very first board game was simply Dice, and it dates from pre-history. The earliest dice game found so far comes from 5000 BC. This particular game consisted of a series of 49 small carved painted stones, and was found at the Başur Höyük burial mound in southeast Turkey. Similar pieces have been found in excavations in Syria and Iraq. Some of the other earliest dice were not actually cubes, but sticks, flattened and painted on a single side. These sticks would be tossed in unison, and then the amount of painted sides showing would be your go. Excavations of Mesopotamian sites have also discovered dice made from carved knuckle bones, wood, painted stones, and turtle shells.

Dice is not only a game on its own; they also form the backbone of many other board games, even those played by the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt in 2500BC. The most popular of these was Senet. Senet is featured in illustrations inside many Ancient Egyptian tombs (as above, where the Egyptian Queen Nefertari is pictured playing the game). By the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550–1077 BC), Senet had become a talisman for the journey of the dead. The Senet board was a grid of 30 squares, arranged in three rows of ten, with two sets of pawns; the rules of the game, however, remain unknown.

Dice continued to form the basis of games throughout history, and their design developed fast. Eventually dice were made from a large variety of materials, including brass, copper, glass, ivory, and marble. By the Roman period they looked like the six-sided dice we use today.

Whereas dice is the longest used component of board games, the longest played board game of all time is The Royal Game of Ur. This game is over 2000 years old. Game enthusiast Irving Finkel discovered the game’s rules carved into an ancient stone tablet. Sometime later he found a photograph of an identical game board in modern India. After making some enquires, Finkel met a retired schoolteacher who had played the same game as a child. This makes The Royal Game of Ur, which gets its name from its founding within the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq, the game that has been played longer than any other in world history.

Once Dice and Senet had become favourite pastimes of the Egyptian royalty, they soon became popular with the working classes as well. Soon new games (one of the earliest being Backgammon) were being invented in increasing number and type. And, like Monopoly, they have never quite gone out of fashion, even in our more computerised age.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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